The page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
- The Gardens
- Studiolo del Cardinale
- The French Academy
Terrazza e Giardini del Pincio
- Obelisco di Antinoo and Casina Valadier
This 1761 etching by Giuseppe Vasi is one of the last views of Villa Medici showing the casino and the gardens with almost all their original decoration of ancient statues and reliefs. In 1780 Grand Duke Leopold I of Tuscany, after having hosted his brother Emperor Joseph II of Austria in Villa Medici in 1769, decided to move most of the statues and the obelisk to Florence.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) obelisk made of Egyptian granite; 2) porticoes with statues; 3) hanging gardens; 4) granite and porphyry basins; 5) gallery with statues. The small map shows also: 6) Casino di Villa Medici; 7) entrance from Via di Porta Pinciana; 8) original location of the group of Niobe and her children; 9) Studiolo del Cardinale; 10) site of the Pincio terrace and gardens, at Vasi's time a property of the Augustinian monks of S. Maria del Popolo.
The view in June 2010
Most of the niches which housed busts and statues are empty and the two lions guarding the loggia are modern copies, but otherwise the elegant façade designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati is intact.
Loggia: (left) interior; (right) exterior
The beauty of Villa Medici is due to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici who in 1576 bought the property from Cardinal Giovanni Ricci; the casino was enlarged and modified. Bartolomeo Ammannati, a Florentine sculptor and architect, designed a loggia, which is a very fine example of serliana; Ammannati decorated also Palazzo di Fiorenza and Villa Giulia with serliana.
Decoration of the central section of the façade
In 1584 Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici bought the entire collection of antiquities of Palazzo Valle.
In line with the prevailing approach of the time the reliefs were adapted to the needs of the decoration and they were "completed" with parts in stucco in order to reach the appropriate size to fit into the frames designed by Ammannati.
The overall design of Villa Medici had an influence on that of nearby Villa Borghese, which was built some thirty years later. You may wish to see an aerial view of the casinos of the two villas side by side in another window.
(left) Decoration of the right tower; (right) decoration of the right wing which includes a large decorative relief from "Ara Pacis Augustae"
According to art historians and archaeologists many reliefs were part of the decoration of Ara Pietatis Augustae, an altar similar to Ara Pacis Augustae, which was completed in 43 AD by Emperor Claudius and which was most likely located near the Tabularium.
(left) Museo dell'Ara Pacis: casts of two original ancient reliefs; (right) how they were utilized for the decoration of the casino
Casts were taken of the original marble reliefs during restorations of the façade. The two reliefs shown above were most likely part of a larger one showing a sacrifice at the Temple of Magna Mater (Cybele). Each of the original marbles was embedded in a larger rectangle with additional figures in stucco.
(left) Façade towards Rome; (right) entrance and balcony
At the time of Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici the main access to the villa was located near Porta Pinciana; from the gate a long alley led the Cardinal's guests to the decorated façade of the casino; the rear façade, which has a commanding view over Rome, was given a more severe appearance, although we know that the Cardinal had plans to embellish it.
(left) 1589 fountain which was supplied by Acqua Felice; (right) illustration from a XIXth century book
From the door of the Villa Medici is the scene familiar to artists of the past, of a fountain shaded by ilexes, which frame a distant view of S. Pietro Today the view is often impaired by the foliage of trees in properties below the fountain terrace.
The fountain is made up of two Roman basins; according to tradition the ball which spouts water is a later addition and it is a ball fired by Queen Christina of Sweden from Castel Sant'Angelo towards Villa Medici to test the guns of the fortress.
Views from near the fountain: (left) SS. Trinità dei Monti; (right) the almost twin domes of S. Maria in Montesanto and S. Maria dei Miracoli
We lived on the Pincian Hill, close by the
gardens of the French Academy. Far and wide
beneath our windows lay the spires and house-tops of the Eternal city, with the Doria pines
standing out against the Western horizon. (..)
Ah, what glorious sights and sounds we had from those upper
windows on the Pincian hill! What pomp and
pageantry of cloud! What mists of golden dawn!
What flashes of crimson sunset upon distant
Amelia B. Edwards - Barbara's History - 1864.
(left) Copy of a bronze statue of Flying Mercury by Giambologna (original in Florence - Museo del Bargello - it opens in another window); (right) copy of the obelisk which was moved to Florence
The gardens of Villa Medici were not as big as those of Villa d'Este, nor did they enjoy the same large supply of water which made that villa renowned for its fountains, however Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici managed to obtain a link with Acqua Felice, a new aqueduct built by Pope Sixtus V and to improve the supply of Acqua Vergine; a series of fountains were built in the gardens and Monte Parnaso, a small mound near the walls of Rome in the northern section of the property became known for its jeux d'eau.
An obelisk bought by the Cardinal was placed at the centre of the terrace opposite the main façade. It decorated Iseo Campense a temple to Isis in Rione Pigna.
Group portraying Niobe and her children (original at Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence). The copies were made at the initiative of Balthus, a Polish-French painter who was Director of the French Academy in 1961-977. Other statues related to Niobe (it opens in another window) were found in Rome after 1870 and are on display at Centrale Montemartini and Museo Nazionale Romano
A complex set of ancient statues found in Rome in 1583 and representing Niobe and her children was placed at the end of the long alley which started at the entrance in Via di Porta Pinciana. They were found near Porta S. Giovanni and perhaps they decorated Horti Lamiani. Grand Duke Leopold I was so fond of these statues that he arranged a special room at Galleria degli Uffizi (it opens in another window) for them.
The myth of Niobe is a symbol of punished pride: she despised Leto who had only two children (Apollo and Diana), whereas her offspring numbered ten (or fourteen), but Apollo and Diana killed all her children and Niobe was turned into a weeping rock.
(left) Statues and fountain at the end of the alley along the walls; (centre) statue of Dea Roma; (right) masks at the sides of the said statue
The group of Niobe was replaced by a gigantic ancient statue donated by Pope Gregory XIII to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici; it was found near Palazzo del Quirinale and it portrayed a seated woman; it was restored in order to resemble Dea Roma, the personification of the City of Rome.
S. Pietro and Palazzo del Belvedere from Villa Medici
The best view of Ancient Rome was from the Janiculum, but when Giuseppe Vasi drew his 1765 Grand View of Rome from the Janiculum he had to modify the actual view in order to show S. Pietro.
Villa Medici, while being too much to the north to provide a view over the whole of Rome, is perfect to fully enjoy that over the great basilica and the other monuments of the Vatican.
Decoration of the studiolo by Jacopo Zucchi: (left) Flora and Zephyrus surrounded by allegories of the Winds; (right) the Frog and the Ox
The main purpose of Villa Medici was to be the stage where Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici entertained his guests and in doing so pursued his political objectives; the Cardinal however enjoyed spending long hours in a small study room built in a tower of the ancient walls. Notwithstanding his position in the Roman church, the cardinal did not choose religious subjects for the decoration of the room. He had another study room in his palace in town which also was decorated by Zucchi. His father and his brother had similar study rooms at Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
Decoration of the studiolo: (left) a child playing with the Medici's heraldic symbol; (right) project for a fountain in front of the villa (side towards Rome)
On October 17, 1587 Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany and elder brother of Cardinal Ferdinando died suddenly together with his second wife; the couple had a male descendant, a boy of eleven, but the Cardinal rushed to Florence and building upon the hostility of the Florentines towards the dead couple, he managed to succeed his brother. Two years later he renounced the cardinalate in order to marry and ensure the continuity of the Grand Duchy.
All activity at Villa Medici stopped; in the early XVIIth century Alessandro, another Medici cardinal resided in the villa. He died in 1605, 26 days after having been elected Pope Leo XI.
Decoration of the "aviary" adjoining the study room. The depiction of birds as a decorative motif was popular in antiquity (as at Carthage's Villa of the Aviary) and it was rediscovered during the Renaissance (as at Palazzo Farnese di Caprarola)
Villa Medici became one of the many properties of the Medici in Rome (including Palazzo Madama), which greatly exceeded the needs of the family, whose relevance declined after the death of Ferdinando in 1609. Without the direct involvement of a great personage, the casino, its collections and its gardens were not properly maintained, although they continued to attract the interest of all those who visited Rome.
The image used as background for this page shows a detail (FERD) of an inscription outside the study room.
View from the study room over the gardens which were added to Villa Borghese in the late XIXth century. At the time of Cardinal Ferdinando the area had a more rural aspect
Collection of plaster casts: (left) statues and busts; (right) reliefs from Colonna Traiana
In 1801 the Grand Duchy of Tuscany was replaced by the Kingdom of Etruria, a puppet state which was controlled by France. In 1804 Villa Medici became a French possession where the French Academy in Rome was relocated from a palace in Via del Corso. As a consequence the plaster casts of Colonna Traiana which were commissioned by King Louis XIV, the founder of the Academy, were moved to Villa Medici.
Jean Alaux (a boarding student at Villa Medici): Louis Vincent Léon Pallière, another boarding student, in his room in 1817 - Wrightsman Collection
Many great French artists have studied at Villa Medici or directed the Academy (you may wish to see the website of the Academy - it opens in another window).
I should name for my own first wish that one did n't have to be a Frenchman to come and live and dream and work at the Académie de France. Read more of Henry James's account of his visit to Villa Medici in 1873.
Terrazza del Pincio (Piazzale Napoleone I)
In 1809 Rome was annexed to the French Empire; the new administration found that citizens did not have a proper promenade publique, a public place where to leisurely walk, see and be seen by others; an ambitious project was developed to create a series of alleys from Porto di Ripetta to new gardens on the Pincio hill which overlooked Piazza del Popolo. The ancient Romans called the hill Collis Hortulorum (Hill of the Gardens) owing to its many villas, one of which belonged to the Pincii family.
According to the project endorsed by Emperor Napoleon the name of the gardens should have been Jardins du grand César and the statue of Dea Roma at Villa Medici should have been placed at the centre of the terrace overlooking Rome. The project was completed only in 1834 and some of the planned references to Ancient Rome were played down, while those to Napoleon were cancelled, although, after the 1870 end of the Papal State, the terrace was dedicated to the Emperor (see a page on the terraces of Rome).
In this pleasant spot the red-trousered French soldiers are always to be seen; bearded and grizzled veterans, perhaps, with medals of Algiers or the Crimea on their breasts. To them is assigned the peaceful duty of seeing that children do not trample on the flower-beds, nor any youthful lover rifle them of their fragrant blossoms to stick in his beloved one's hair. Here sits (drooping upon some marble bench, in the treacherous sunshine) the consumptive girl, whose friends have brought her, for a cure, into a climate that instils poison into its very purest breath. Here, all day, come nursery maids, burdened with rosy English babies, or guiding the footsteps of little travellers from the far western world. Here, in the sunny afternoon, roll and rumble all kinds of carriages, from the Cardinal's old-fashioned and gorgeous purple carriage to the gay barouche of modern date. Here horsemen gallop on thorough-bred steeds. Here, in short, all the transitory population of Rome, the world's great watering-place, rides, drives, or promenades! Here are beautiful sunsets; and here, whichever way you turn your eyes, are scenes as well worth gazing at, both in themselves and for their historical interest, as any that the sun ever rose and set upon.
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Marble Faun - 1860.
When the Pope drove abroad it was a solemn spectacle; even if you neither kneeled nor uncovered you were irresistibly impressed. Read more of Henry James's account of his visit to the Pincio in 1873.
(left/centre) Obelisco di Antinoo; (right) Casina Valadier
In 1822 Pope Pius VII erected in the main alley of the gardens an obelisk found in 1570 outside
Porta Maggiore and which for a long time was kept in the premises of Palazzo Barberini before being placed in Cortile della Pigna.
The obelisk was dedicated by Emperor Hadrian to his favourite Antinous, who drowned in the Nile; in the reliefs at the top of the obelisk Antinous and in one case Hadrian are shown offering gifts to Egyptian gods; the hieroglyphic inscription below was dictated by Hadrian and it ends with a prayer to the gods "that Antinous may enjoy everlasting youth" (you may wish to see all the obelisks of Rome in one page).
In 2005 archaeologists identified a temple to Antinous at Villa Adriana and the obelisk is now believed to have been erected there and then relocated by Emperor Heliogabalus to his villa near Porta Maggiore.
The gardens were designed by Giuseppe Valadier, who turned a small existing building into a Neoclassic coffee-house. A bridge across Via del Muro Torto links these gardens with those of Villa Borghese.
Museo di Roma a Palazzo Braschi: Amenities of the Pincio Gardens (late XIXth century): (left) Carlo Montani: Water clock designed by Father Giovan Battista Embriaco, similar to that at Palazzo Berardi; (right) Stefano Donadoni: Water tank disguised as a Swiss chalet
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Dopo il divisato convento vedesi il magnifico casino, con un fonte, che per essere sull' altura di questo colle, è ammirabile; ma molto più ammirabile è quello , che sta nell' alto del giardino. Fu eretta questa delizia dal Card. Medici con somma magnificenza, e ricchezza di statue, busti, e bassirilievi di marmo, di porfido, ed ancora di metallo; perciò farà meglio il rimettersi alla relazione del Custode di quelle maraviglie, da cui il gentil Lettore sarà ben accolto, che volerle quì con brevità descrivere.